Beyond Reason

The Problem of Being Wrong

Posted in Faith,Philosophy by Abigail on May 22, 2008

Giant Warning Upfront: The following is theoretical nonsense and may seem like paranoia, but it makes a point. With that said… read on.


There’s a real problem if you say you’ve never been wrong. However, there’s a greater problem if you say you have. If you’ve been wrong in the past, why should you believe yourself in the future? If you’ve been wrong once, you can be wrong again. And if are wrong there will be no knowing it because, well, you’re wrong! And it gets better. If you assume this is true of you because you are human, it now applies to everyone: you have created a problem (actually, you are the problem) and then removed all hope of solving it by applying it to everyone.

And an additional twist. The moment you claim to have been wrong is the same moment you claim to be right: you must be right that you were actually wrong. And so in essence you are hoping that you are right – there is no demonstrating it – and you are hoping that you have the ability to locate “wrongness” – there is no demonstrating it.

Ok, so that was the theoretical nonsense part. For the record, I don’t lose any sleep over this; I just find it fascinating. (If such basic things can not be hammered out theoretically, why do we put so much faith in human reason?)

What significance could it possibly have? Both science and theology make great claims to certainty. They tell us the truth. Ostensibly. But, due to the above problem, this is impossible; I always have the capability of being wrong. Conclusion? There’s still room for scientific experimentation and religious faith, but there’s no room for certainty. This is essentially an attitudinal shift, but it will result in new actions.

So here’s my question: is it wrong, or better yet blasphemous, for a Christian to say there’s no room for certainty? And, an additional question: was my reasoning correct? If not, of course my first question no longer applies…

Looking forward to responses!! I actually don’t think all my reasonsing lined up quite right here… but that would be case in point, right? Or wrong? 🙂


18 Responses to 'The Problem of Being Wrong'

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  1. Epiphanist said,

    Descartes scores again with the philosophy of doubt. Reason (and science) argues that it (reason) is credible because it allows for the possibility of error while faith is just based on it’s own certainty. Nice theory, but it gets a bit harder than that in practice, some things have to be assumed as correct to make reason work. Faith is often just blind or dumb, the honesty to analyse which bits hold true gets lost in the myth and emotion. The assumption that there is a universal truth for either camp is probably a fallacy, the assumption that we could understand it if there was is probably ignorant. But, I could also be wrong. A friend once said to me, ‘I was wrong once, I thought I had made a mistake – but I hadn’t!”.

  2. Amanda O said,

    Hey Epiphanist! (Do you go by anything else?)

    I thought Descartes didn’t actually think reason could be doubted. Am I wrong? (That’s kind of funny in this context…) I had the impression he placed supreme confidence in reason.

    “Faith is often just blind” Isn’t faith always blind, be definition?

    Thanks for your post!

  3. Epiphanist said,

    Looking for common ground? That’s how these things get started! I like the idea of Descartes using doubt to deconstruct everything to find a starting point, which is why the philosophy is existentialism – existence was all he could really be sure of. As you say, it was all uphill from there. The truths of Faith are very different to the axioms of reason, because they give you insight – not blindness. That’s why they are durable. Yes, I am still Epiphanist, even though I have written about most of the things I had on my mind when I started.

  4. Amanda O said,

    Hey! Thanks again for your thoughts!

    “Looking for common ground?” What are you referring to?

    “using doubt to deconstruct everything to find a starting point”
    First, if you deconstruct everything, you literally have nothing left. But that’s a side point. My main point is that doubt isn’t capable of providing a starting point… because you will eventually deconstruct everything, and be left with nothing. It’s not very fair to doubt some things and not all, and that leaves you with madness, actually.

    “The truths of Faith are very different to the axioms of reason” This is what I’m REALLY interested in. Could you defend this point? The reason I ask is that you go on to say “because they give you insight – not blindness.” Why should I think that the axioms of reason do not provide blindness? Is that not what axioms are? I make them because I truly am blind. Obviously, the point is to avoid assumption, and the axiom is like the mother of all assumption, only, entirely unavoidable. So I would say this is blindness. Again, I would love to hear you defend your original statement.

  5. Epiphanist said,

    I thought you were paraphrasing to find common ground? Common ground would be how any school of thought was founded? Of course, the commonality only makes a thought seem right? I am happy with my version of Descartes, also happy that he was prepared to accept that he may have been deluded before defining his starting point. ‘Blindness’ referred to your doubtful axiom that faith is always blind, not to the axioms of reason. There was probably a better way to write the sentence, but I’m not going to get defensive about that. I have enjoyed your comments, and in the strange way of the mind, gone off on a productive tangent. Descartes is like that!

  6. Oleg said,

    I’m not a philosopher, so it is possible that I misunderstand some things that you discuss here.

    There is always a possibility of being wrong. Science always tries to test itself. If experiments do not confirm predictions made by scientific theory, then this theory is modified and the cycle restarts.

    Regarding axioms: you can choose not to accept them “blindly”. I think the reason they are accepted without proof is because they state self-evident truth and are testable. For example: two points uniquely define a line.

    Are the “truths of faith” testable?

  7. Amanda O said,

    Hey Epiphanist,

    Thanks for your posts and thoughts! When I was saying “can you defend…” I really meant “can you explain.” Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to suggest you had anything to defend or become defensive about. Your statement was very intriguing! And I wanted to hear further explanation. So, if you ever feel like providing why you believe “The truths of Faith are very different to the axioms of reason” I would LOVE to hear.


    Oleg! Welcome back. I’m not a philosopher either. That should be apparent from my writings.

    There are different kinds of axioms. The type I had in mind are the untestable ones, primarily ones like “the universe is intelligible” and “my mind is efficacious.” Those are completely untestable and yet are required for all further movement. (Most of us just assume these are true from the day we’re born, till the day we die, and have no idea you could even consider any other proposition. Only philosophers take things too far.) So, I should have been clearer: in reference to the untestable ones, we are blind.

    In reference to, “two points define a line”, well, that’s testable. But I have to say this actually fits inside a certain category of logic or thinking and I just can’t remember what it’s called. But saying “two points define a line” when we already know that a line segment is “between two points” is the same as saying “since Martha is older than Mary, Mary is younger than Martha.” Yup! You’ve done nothing special here.

    “Are the “truths of faith” testable?” No. And this is my point. Neither are axioms (at least the ones I was referring to.) That’s why I was asking Epiphanist to extrapolate on his claim that truths of faith are different than the axioms of reason. I see no difference, ultimately.

    Here’s a thought to leave you with:

    No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.

    Do you trust yourself?

  8. Epiphanist said,

    I thought twice about coming back to this one, but here goes. Truth in faith is about knowing, not about proving. It is subjective, so unlikely to be measured or tested against some external yardstick. It is resonant and sometimes more recognisable with practice. Think maybe of intuition. Obviously there are schools of thought which recognise shared truths of this nature. Think maybe of love. You could agree that it is true? But how would you measure it? Would you be able to call love right or wrong in itself? Only if you apply a moral code, which can be a different sort of shared truth, also subjective, and often wrong. Maybe it would help to think of truth in faith as an altered state of consciousness, it could give Einstein the insight to solve his problem!

  9. Brian said,

    We can and need to have certainty about some things. The Bible is outside of human reason. It is truth from God and Christians are indwelt with the Holy Spirit to help us understand that truth. Certainly there are things in the Bible that we cannot be certain about, but Scripture clearly delineates things which we can know. To say there is no certainty is to say there is no absolute truth (at least that we can know) which can lead to a host of erroneous post-modern conclusions. Ok, that’s my 30 second version.

  10. Amanda O said,

    To Ephinanist –

    Hey! Glad you came back. I liked your thoughts. They made sense. One question to go along with your thoughts: are you implying that the axioms of reason are not subjective? Ultimately (or originally) they are are. Why? They come from a human mind. All things from a human mind, are, by definition, subjective. They came through the funnel of that mind. Now, we still make the distinction of “objective” versus “subjetive”, but technically speaking, no one’s ever been able to actually say how we can view anything as other than subjective. It’s a theoretical conundrum.

    So, yeah, your point that much is subjective is right on. I agree with that. However, I don’t think that Einstein really had a problem; all he was REALLY saying (in my not very humble opinion) is that the human mind is finite and derivative. But this of course poses huge problems…


    Brian! Are you Brian from Washington Heights? Just checking.

    The problem with my post is that I left the key term undefined: certainty. And I think Epiphanist has raised the key to defining this term. When we say certain, are we referring to objective certainty or subjective certainty? Almost always, I mean objective. (Which according to my logic above is never possible, so I’m basically in disagreement with myself.)

    “The Bible is outside of human reason.” If it is outside of human reason, how can I understand any of it? What then is theology? Is not theology applying human reason to an entire set of spiritual/philosophical/metaphysical propositions? I get the point of your statement, but I just don’t think it’s true (as it currently stands). If it’s outside of human reason, I can’t understand any of it. Perhaps, you could say instead, that its origin is outside of human reason. But there again you have a problem. It was written with human hands! Christians maintain free will. Were the writers of Scripture free as they wrote? If they were free, then they were thinking, which means they were understanding as they wrote, which means the Bible is NOT outside of human reason. It was written through human reason and is interpreted through human reason (amongst other things). If something is outside of human reason, we can have no interaction with it (rationally).

    “It is truth from God” Where did you get this idea? (This is the great question.) To answer it is to immediately apply human reason. The Bible better not be outside human reason!

    “To say there is no certainty is to say there is no absolute truth” – I greatly disagree with this statement. First, there is a difference between saying “there is no certainty” and “there is no certainty that I can find.” If I say “there is no certainty that I can find” the problem could be me, right? Right. And that was the point of my post. My ability to be wrong negates objective certainty (but not subjective). So, in regards to your statement, a person could say “I do believe in certainty, and absolute truth, but I don’t believe I can find it.”

    What do you think about that? Sorry super long!!

  11. Epiphanist said,

    Refreshing to meet someone who understands that the human experience must be subjective.No, I wasn’t particularly implying that the axioms of reason are objective, even though I see that assumption so often. I was familiar with the Einstein quote in another format “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” which may help with understanding my response?

  12. Brian said,

    That’s what I get for a 30-second post.

    “Outside of human reason” was the wrong term. Let’s try “independent of human reason.” The veracity of Scripture does not rest on human reason. I disagree that human reason necessarily needs to be applied to understand and know truth. I think that is where the Holy Spirit is most clearly seen in our lives. The Bible talks about God’s spirit testifying with our spirit. The Holy Spirit indwells and fills us. He transforms our hearts and our minds. The Bible speaks at many points of us being able to “know” various things.

    To me it seems that to say there is absolute truth, but that we can’t know what it is would defeat the purpose of God establishing that truth in the first place.

  13. Brian said,

    Sorry, I couldn’t stop….

    My salvation, my eternal destiny in heaven is not subjective. It is an objective truth based upon God’s promises which the Holy Spirit has illumined me to understand. Where that fits in all the psychology jargon I’m not sure, in fact I don’t believe it does. God uses the simple things of the world to confound the wise. This truth has been presented in my life in a very vivid way. Praise the Lord for His grace each day.

  14. Brian said,

    Philosophy….no psychology….sheesh, it’s late.

  15. amandalaine said,

    Brian, first – you are totally right. I view philosophy as being very close to nonsense and madness; however, I also view it as completely unavoidable for the truly curious. I fit in that category, hence all these posts.

    I hope to respond to both you and Ephiphanist… as soon as I get some time!

  16. amandalaine said,

    Epiphanist –

    Ditto! (“Refreshing to meet someone who understands that the human experience must be subjective.”) Of course what that exactly translates into, were someone to ask me, I couldn’t say.


    Brian –

    Well, we’re operating off slightly different paradigms, so this will be interesting.

    “The veracity of Scripture does not rest on human reason.” No, it doesn’t, but for you to determine that the Scripture is veritable (true) requires human reason (yours, to be specific). Unless you wish to say, “I just believe what they told me” (“they” being theologians of ages past and today.) But even if you make this claim, you still chose to believe, therefore you thought, therefore human reason was involved. Human reason can never be wholly extricated from any human scenario… so pretty much you have conundrum till dooms day. Anyway, if a person comes to a Bible, will it do them any good if they don’t read it? So, let’s assume they read it. If they’re reading it, guess what they’re using? Human reason. Again, human reason can’t be extricated from any human scenario. You say “I disagree that human reason necessarily needs to be applied to understand and know truth.” Well, if the truth is from the Bible, you had to have read it (which requires reasoning) or heard it (which also requires reasoning). You can’t escape reasoning. It’s what you are, to some extent.

    So, while you can say something is true whether or not we ever understand it is true (“does not rest on human reason”), the fact that you, or I, choose to believe something is true immediately and unavoidably involves our reason. (Although, note, I’m not implying reason alone.)

    “To me it seems that to say there is absolute truth, but that we can’t know what it is would defeat the purpose of God establishing that truth in the first place.” Yeah, that is the way it seems. I started a thought and did not finish it. The second part to my thought, to put it in a very Disneyish/trite/crass fashion, is that while I can not find truth, it can find me. And this is exactly what you see in Scripture: things like, “while you did not call me, I called you.” Jesus Himself claims to be the Truth. Could not the Truth find me? Logically, I just find it impossible for a finite human being to have objectively claimed to have located objective certain ultimate truth. That’s absurdity at its height.

    “My salvation, my eternal destiny in heaven is not subjective.” Here we get messy. To address this, we’d need to discuss what subjective and objective means and I currently would not be able to do justice to that endeavor. I’ll just go with this: I disagree with you and am not capable enough to explain why. That was satisfactory wasn’t it?

    Perhaps someone else could simply define objective and subjective? That might be a tall order…

    Yeah, eventually, all this thinking turns into babble. I agree with you Brian. What you present in your final paragraph is very subjective. And it is very beautiful.

    Yes, it is late.

    Brad – you out there? Could you come define objective and subjective?

  17. jai said,

    I was wondering where your existence had gotten to lately, and I’ve come to find out by reading up, that its been (at least a bit) in cyberspace. I know its a late comment, but I wanted to jump on the bandwagon with a few comments.
    Oleg asked what are the truths (or axioms) of faith. If I were to state them for what I think a Christian must attest to it would be that a) God exists, and b) he reveals himself in what we refer to as “The Bible”. Given these 2 presuppositions (without getting into definitions of what’s in the bible, or what not), I think that the rest of Christianity is logically defensible.
    Are these testable? I’d say they certainly are for the Christian, but not necessarily for the non-Christian, due to the fact that for the believer, they have been given the Holy Spirit according to these presuppositions. For the non-believer? That’s a good question… I guess it depends on if you fall into a Calvanist camp or an Armenian one for starters, but that debate is for another time.
    About certainty… Doesn’t admitting you could be wrong presuppose a willingness to change if you are? If not, doesn’t admitting a lack of desire to change presuppose that practically speaking what you live and build your life around is actually a working definition of absolute truth? In other words, if you are presented with a convincing argument (meaning that you are convinced) that your current axioms or truths are wrong, but that new truths/axioms are more correct, but ultimately you don’t change your life to live by them, then do they actually become truth? Or isn’t it just intellectual laziness to say that “I could be wrong” but “I’m unwilling to change even if given an argument I must acknowledge as right.” I guess what I’m getting at is, the operating assumptions we make on a day-to-day basis are more or less the actual certainty we believe. If you intellectually assent to something but don’t follow through with a practice, can you claim that what you believe is correct? I will respectfully admit that I could be wrong, but submit that I’m probably not going to change my mind, because if what I believe didn’t make sense with life, then why bother believing it? I think if you read Ravi Zacharias’ treatise “Can Man Live without God”, he makes a good case for the “truths of Christianity” being good operating assumptions to live one’s life by, and therefore although they might be categorized as subjective, that doesn’t negate their validity when the meaning of life comes into question.
    Wow… I guess I’d better get off the computer and go get dinner. I’ve been cooped up in the lab too long :).

  18. Amanda O said,

    Hey Thanks Jai! Good stuff. Sorry to get back so late.

    I really appreciated this line: “the operating assumptions we make on a day-to-day basis are more or less the actual certainty we believe”

    I don’t have particularly definitive conclusions on the matter; just working through concepts… but more to come later!

    How’s your lab work coming?

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